Oil painting is a fantastic medium and was the generally preferred choice for old master painters. Oil paint is slow drying and versatile, allowing you to easily manipulate it on the canvas.
I started out with acrylic paints but was quickly frustrated by the extremely fast drying times and the changing in colors as the acrylic paint dries. So I decided to make a transition into oil paints.
It was certainly a steep learning curve but I am extremely glad I made the transition.
Unfortunately oil painting can seem very daunting to a beginner. Compared to acrylic painting, there are many rules you must follow to ensure the paint dries properly and you can easily get overwhelmed by all the procedures.
If you are interested in oil painting, then these oil painting tips should help you out. I note though these are just to get you started. You will need to conduct more research as oil painting is a very complex craft.
If you are a seasoned oil painter yourself and have some tips to add, please feel free to contribute in the comment section at the bottom.
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Oil Painting Tip 1: Paint Fat Over Lean
This is probably the most important rule of oil painting, especially if you are painting wet on wet (a technique where you do not let the paint dry in between layers).
Fat paint refers to how much oil is present. By adding an oil medium to your paint, you are making it fatter. By adding a solvent to your oil paint, you are breaking down the oil and making it leaner.
The fatter the paint, the slower it dries.
The reason for painting fat over thin is that the layers on top must dry slower than the layers on the bottom of your canvas. If not, the paint will crack as it dries.
A simple way of tackling this is to have a process for painting. Start with very lean paint (paint plus solvent). Then add layers which are slightly fatter (paint plus a mix of solvent and oil medium). Every subsequent layer should be fatter than the prior (more oil medium / less solvent).
Oil Painting Tip 2: Paint Thick over Thin
This is a similar principle to the fat over lean rule, in that it is based on the drying time of oil paint. Thick oil paint dries slower than thin.
So in theory, your first layers should be very thin, almost glazes of paint. Then as you build up your painting you be adding increasing amount of substance and oil.
Oil Painting Tip 3: Prepare Your Canvas
Preparing your canvas is a commonly overlooked but very important step. What does it actually mean?
Well firstly, you must make sure your canvas has sufficient gesso coating. This is generally the case for most pre-primed canvas you buy from art stores.
Next, you should consider laying down a muted background color for your canvas (I like to use Winsor & Newton Winton Oil Colour Tube, 37ml, Raw Umber). This achieves the following:
- It gives you more of a middle ground to work with on your canvas, rather than a glaringly white canvas. Painting straight onto a white canvas could wrap your sense of values.
- It avoids any bare white parts of your canvas being exposed.
- It is an easy way to just start your painting and stops you from procrastinating, waiting for the perfect time to strike the canvas.
Now that you have a colored background layed down on your canvas, you should consider placing a sketch for your composition.
The sketch does not have to be all da Vinci. All it needs to do is set out the major shapes in your composition.
The purpose of the sketch is to merely guide you around the canvas. A sketch is also particularly useful if you are dealing with any perspective lines in your painting (i.e. a cityscape).
Oil Painting Tip 4: Try Painting With A Limited Palette
More colors does not mean a more sophisticated painting. If anything, it is often the opposite.
In your next painting, try limited your palette to the bare essentials of blue, yellow, red (the primaries) and white. By mixing the three primary colors you get a natural black. Add some white to that and you have gray. The three primary colors can then be used to mix what-ever color you need.
Using a limited palette will help focus your painting and create harmony. The more colors, the more difficult it becomes to balance your painting and control the chaos.
Anders Zorn was known to use a very limited palette of Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Medium, Ivory Black plus White. This is often referred to as the Zorn palette.
The Ivory Black was used by Anders Zorn as a very dark blue and the Cadmium Red and Yellow Ochre made up all three of the primary colors. With the addition of white, he was able to create a broad range of colors but retain a harmony across his paintings.
You can read more about Anders Zorn here:
Oil Painting Tip 5: Upsize Your Paint Brush
A simple way of improving your painting technique is to take the largest brush you are comfortable using, and up-sizing it. Try using this brush for a long as you can brush downsizing to smaller brushes.
A large brush has such influence in your painting and forces you to be decisive and efficient with your strokes. You will also be able to cover the canvas much quicker.
Oil Painting Tip 6: Your Palette Knife Is Not Just For Mixing Colors
Palette knives are not only useful for mixing colors on your palette. They can be a fantastic painting tool used for applying paint in an impasto style, or for scraping paint off your canvas.
You can also use palette knives to put paint on the canvas without any blending which you would get from using a brush.
There are some artists who have left paint brushes behind entirely in favor of palette knives.
Richard Schmid skillfully uses the palette knife to create crisp strokes of color as shown by these flowers. You can read more about using the palette knife for painting here:
Oil Painting Tip 7: Learn Global Techniques You Can Use In All Your Paintings
Instead of spending all your time learning how to paint a specific beach scene, type of tree of cloud formation, invest in learning global techniques which you can use in all your paintings.
Great painters have mastered a handful of techniques which they use over and over again in all their paintings. Learning how to paint a highly specific scene will teach you exactly that, but nothing more.
Oil Painting Tip 8: Incorporate Scraping
Instead of adding more paint to create objects in your painting, try scraping paint off your canvas. This is a create technique for adding texture, detailing trees or even just for signing your painting.
You can use the blunt end of your paint brush or palette knives for this technique.
Pro Hart was a famous Australian painter who used scraping in many of his paintings, usually to depict the harsh and sketchy Australian environment.
Oil Painting Tip 9: Careful with Blending
Blending is a common technique used in oil painting to create a refined and smoothed appearance. It is particularly useful for pushing objects back in perspective by softening the edges into the background (i.e. distant mountains which blend into the sky).
With that being said, it is one of the most overused techniques in oil painting. This is likely due to those painters trying to create a realistic finish as they view the painting from close. But you should not be painting for people to view up close. You want them to see the painting from a reasonable distance.
Your brush strokes should be visible up close, but as you step back from your painting, there will be optical blending and those strokes will no longer be clearly visible.
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PS. If you have not already, be sure to join the Free Online Painting Course. You can also find more advanced tips in my ebook, 21 Easy Ways To Improve Your Paintings and reference photos in my Reference Photo Library.